All my efforts to understand the feeling of the Holy have led to the conviction that all contemporary religions are institutions that claim knowledge of and access to the sacred, but -- hopelessly -- can only echo and derive because they are based on writing. Words can only point to “felt meanings,” which are inexplicable and unique products of persons interacting with the world that are better expressed by the arts: music, dance, arts, and the other uses of the creating senses.
There is always a lot of interest among people to “create,” but a reluctance to seek felt meanings by interacting with the world, which is the source of what is called “creation” but is really “translation” from felt meaning to its metaphors, which might be only a chord or a shape or a gesture. It is the metaphors that the institutional religions seize on and claim are unique and privileged: owned.
The felt meanings are bodily sums of the human sensorium. The written analysis of them in tracts and Bibles and sermons are products of rational thought about the instinct-infused felt meanings. It is like the analysis of how to paint like Rembrandt, dance like Nureyev, and even suggestions of how to do it oneself -- but though the descriptions might help you understand it better, they will never enable you to actually do it. Because the actual creation is in the realm of “felt” meaning, not constructed rational definitions.
I bought a book called “The Felt Meanings of the World: a Metaphysics of Feeling,” by Quentin Smith, which is a careful and reflective observation of what people feel, sorting the happening. I haven’t read it yet though I’ve had it a while. Suzanne Langer was doing something similar in her own way. Universities -- even Divinity Schools -- are about rationality, introspective reflection, theories of analysis. If you get too emotional, they’ll send you for therapy. At a Pentecostal Bible school, they’ll accept your ecstasies and miseries, but push them into pre-existing Christian categories, not very sophisticated ones but ones expressed in writing. The poetic passages -- Song of Solomon or the Psalms -- the ones related to prayer and metaphor -- come closest.
Otherwise, one must go to the anthropological non-literary religions that the Abramic world will refuse to accept as legitimate. They are called animistic because they work directly in the metaphors of real objects instead of words, for instance, the skins of animals associated with dance and song that carry the concepts in the Thunder Pipe Bundles of the Blackfeet.
Religion in words is a hostage to academia and legalistic argument. Feeling the sacred cannot be argued -- one either feels it or not, though it’s possible to have some sense of it through empathy. Because of pre-existing definitions meant to capture the power of metaphors, institutional religion cannot allow re-definition of concepts like “God” so that it must always contest the claims of primal, instinctive, poetic perception of the Holy. This is done by defining, appealing to precedent, invoking authorities, and basically never leaving the functions of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, a product of mutation and evolution that allows language to be a filter of experience. This requirement limits accounts of the sacred to those who have mastered professional (professing) systems supported by institutions.
But systems exist in juxtaposition to other systems, including those of physiology, physics, and even aesthetics, though they are “about” human experience rather than exemplifying it. Because these macro-categories or disciplines start from different ways of experiencing, they can oppose each other or reinforce each other without arguing about dogma.
Thus, the Bernini portrait of St. Theresa in the throes of spiritual orgasm is inarguable. It just IS. And the ISness of it means that sexual experience can be -- as in Song of Solomon -- legitimate, though it is not wordless. Part of what legitimizes sex is that it is involved in “attachment,” or “bonding,” or the phenomenon of love that has become so badly corrupted, partly through overdependence on words rather than experience. Quite like religion.
One of the most useful texts for me is Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane.” In it he points to the feelings we have in what Turner calls “the liminal space.” We can actually experience the difference between standing or passing through a doorway, or up or down a height, or at the edge of something like the ocean or in a place where something significant has happened.
No doubt this is physiological, a feeling produced by the brain and its subtle sensorium that animals use to keep from falling over cliffs or returning to a dangerous place, though this is a negative way of putting it. Still, even a one-celled animal senses molecularly what to avoid and what to approach. As evolution has proceeded, those functions have been elaborated, but any creature that didn’t have those abilities was likely to be eliminated.
It’s a long leap from a paramecium to Gerard Manley Hopkins, but even something as complex as his poetry is basically a construct of senses filtered through language. One could reverse-engineer it to the original experience, and -- indeed -- that’s basically what we do as we read. Of course, in some times and places authorities will insist on literal meanings and burn you at the stake if you say god/father is just a metaphor. Some fathers, who believe THEY are god, will also insist with near-lethal punishment and this is the core evil -- not the concepts of god or fathers, nor even their confusion into entitlement -- but the departure from reality, which often means giving up control and recognizing suffering, if only through empathy. There is no way prosperity is either a privilege or a virtue. It’s just another ISness.
The first step towards Felt Meaning is awareness through all the senses, every way that the body interacts with the world including gravity, which way one is facing, memory, the state of muscles including the gut, sound, the present chemistry of one’s blood. The second step is the neurology of recognizing and sorting the information. The third step is deriving meaning from all those factors. The fourth is acting on the meaning and sharing evidence with others, writing poems and painting pictures as well as defining words and arguing about them in shared strategies of rational thought.
The fifth step is renewing awareness of embeddedness, which is a Felt Meaning. A human is woven of the universe, an instrument of the planet able to produce consciousness and response, thus part of the flow of change, the velocity of creation. One can feel it. This is where the future will come from.